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Do you ever read books, plays or short stories that have been translated from another language? Have you ever read a book for school that was translated, such as “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse or “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen?
When reading translated works, have you ever thought about the choices the translator made about language and sentence structure, and how those might affect the message of the story, play or poem? Have you ever thought about the translator’s identity? How much do you think a translator’s race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or ability has to do with the translation?
In “Amanda Gorman’s Poetry United Critics. It’s Dividing Translators,” Alex Marshall writes about a debate in Europe about who should be asked to translate work by writers of color. (If you haven’t read Ms. Gorman’s poem, you can read the transcript here.)
Hadija Haruna-Oelker, a Black journalist, has just produced the German translation of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the poem about a “skinny Black girl” that for many people was the highlight of President Biden’s inauguration.
So has Kubra Gumusay, a German writer of Turkish descent.
As has Uda Strätling, a translator, who is white.
Literary translation is usually a solitary pursuit, but the poem’s German publisher went for a team of writers to ensure the poem — just 710 words — wasn’t just true to Gorman’s voice. The three were also asked to make its political and social significance clear, and to avoid anything that might exclude people of color, people with disabilities, women, or other marginalized groups.
For nearly two weeks, the team debated word choices, occasionally emailing Ms. Gorman for clarifications. But as they worked, an argument was brewing elsewhere in Europe about who has the right to translate the poet’s work — an international conversation about identity, language and diversity in a proud but often overlooked segment of the literary world.
“This whole debate started,” Gumusay said, with a sigh.
It began in February when Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands, said it had asked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a writer whose debut novel won last year’s Booker International Prize, to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch.
Rijneveld, who uses the pronouns they and them, was the “ideal candidate,” Meulenhoff said in a statement. But many social media users disagreed, asking why a white writer had been chosen when Gorman’s reading at the inauguration had been a significant cultural moment for Black people.
Three days later, Rijneveld quit.
Then, the poem’s Catalan publisher dropped Victor Obiols, a white translator, who said in a phone interview his publisher told him his profile “was not suitable for the project.”
Literary figures and newspaper columnists across Europe have been arguing for weeks about what these decisions mean, turning Ms. Gorman’s poem of hope for “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished” into the latest focus of debates about identity politics across the continent. The discussion has shone a light on the often unexamined world of literary translation and its lack of racial diversity.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
What is your reaction to the debate in Europe? Do you think white writers should translate a Black author’s work? How much does a translator’s racial identity matter? Should other aspects of identity beyond race — class, political views, ability, religion, nationality — be taken into account when publishers are deciding who should translate a written work?
How would you describe the work and responsibility of a translator? Is he or she obligated to stay true to the exact words, phrases, meanings and intentions of the original writer? Or do you think it is important for the translator to find ways for those same words and meanings to translate not only linguistically, but also culturally, to the audience he or she is writing for?
Think about the language or languages you speak: What are some of the nuances — vocabulary, dialect and grammar use — that could be changed or lost as a result of a translation? If you speak multiple languages, what are some of the limitations or differences in language that make translation difficult? The featured article uses gendered language as one example, but what are others that you can think of?
The American Literary Translators Association argued that the framing of this debate is false: Instead of “whether identity should be the deciding factor in who is allowed to translate,” the real problem is “the scarcity of Black translators.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Some countries have asked musicians or rappers to translate Ms. Gorman’s poem. What do you think about this approach? Do you think that people who are not necessarily professional translators could, or should, be invited to translate work? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of taking this route?